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AADL Executive Director’s Fuzzy Math and Alleged Violations of Patrons’ Privacy Raises Red Flags

by P.D. Lesko

Librarians are all about the numbers—exact numbers: Dewey decimals, due dates, number of copies, and call numbers. The Executive Director of the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) is all about numbers, too. However, her numbers are far from precise; in fact, one could argue that Ann Arbor District Library Executive Director Josie Parker’s calculations are about as fuzzy as the math one might expect from a graduate of the Mitt Romney Institute of Economics & Tax Policy.

Just in case you’re new to this “should we or shouldn’t we build a new library” question, rest assured it’s not new. In 2008, the AADL Board of Directors and Executive Director Josie P., (pictured left) wanted taxpayers to foot the bill for a brand new downtown library building. In September 2008, Ann Arbor District Library Director Josie Parker told the Ann Arbor News it would cost $71 million to raze and replace the downtown library. Now, four years later, she claims the same plan to raze and replace library will cost $65 million. In September 2008, Josie Parker told the public it would cost $65 million to renovate the existing building. Today, she claims it would cost $58.8 million to renovate the existing building.

Supporters of the proposed 2012 bond intimate that the public is solidly behind the project. As it turns out, the libretto doesn’t exactly match the music. In fact, not as many people today support the plan to raze and rebuild as did in 2008. According to coverage in the Ann Arbor News, in 2008 50 percent of residents surveyed said “Ann Arbor needs a renovated or new downtown library” and 14 percent said a new library was “not needed.” Four years later, according to the AADL website, “45 percent of the respondents said they were willing to support a $65 million bond for a downtown library project,” and 31 percent of respondents who would vote no said “a new library was not needed.” Over the past four years, more people have come to oppose the plan and fewer people support it.

Then, we have the fuzzy math, or as President Obama has taken to referring to misleading information repeated over and again by people who try to fool the public into voting one way or another, “the lies.”

Adjusting for inflation, the vernal equinox, and by standing on one leg with your left eye closed, Parker’s 2012 numbers make perfect sense to Ann Arbor’s crackerjack business leaders, including those who warm the nice chairs over at the Downtown Development Authority HQ. To date, Parker has not explained how the same 2008 plan, which was never costed out, can be pitched to the public as costing millions less four years later.  According to those pesky economists at U.S. Department of Labor, a $71 million dollar project (say, oh, the construction of a new library) completed in 2008 would cost $76.3 million dollars in 2012, taking into account a 7.5 percent rate of inflation. Parker’s 2008 claim that it would cost $65 million to renovate the current building means that in 2012 a renovation would cost $69.8 million, rather than the $58.8 million dollar price tag Parker and her supporters are trying to sell to the public.

In short, as President Obama has been fond of saying lately to a certain someone and his VP candidate, “Their math just doesn’t add up.” Alas, fuzzy math has become a staple of the local Hive Mind Collective and their business community supporters. Ward 2 Council member-elect Sally Hart Petersen demonstrated the stunning business acumen of the DDA Board members (all of whom were appointed by John Hieftje) quite clearly when she pointed out that by paying for metered parking with nickels users could save 33 percent. Seriously. Evidently, no one at the DDA bothered to do the math when they set the indexed pricing for the city’s about 1,700 meters. Petersen, however, obviously stood in front of a parking meter and did the math in her head.

Those in favor of the project include the not-so-beloved Downtown Development Authority, who would skim tax money from a newly built library, and a coven of local developers. They favor a new library because it would “revitalize” Ann Arbor’s downtown by providing a 400 seat meeting space, a cafe, a catering kitchen and a place where fledgling porn film entrepreneurs can do video production on a shoe-string budget. Actually, what the Director of the Ann Arbor District Library, the DDA and developers want is a library fit for a metropolis. In San Diego, the city’s 1.3 million residents rustled up the money for new $184 million central library. It’s under construction and when completed will include a 350 seat auditorium, teen center, cafe, and 24-foot-high living wall of honeysuckle vines.

How much does Josie P. want a new building? She wants it enough to allegedly violate the library’s privacy policy by sending out an email blast to the library’s registered patrons that purports to present “the facts”—many of which are in dispute. The email, titled “Downtown Library 2012: Facts about the Downtown Library Bond Proposal,” was emailed out to thousands of library patrons. In response to the mailer (which Parker posted to her AADL blog), this comment was posted:

I have received a disturbing e-mail from your ‘downtown’ e-mail address, promoting the library bond proposal. This makes me very uneasy about the security of my private information on file with the library. I read your Privacy Policy at ‘About Us’ on the website, but it does not address the use of patron e-mail addresses for political purposes. It does say that you will only use my e-mail address to send me notices, and I regularly receive alerts regarding holds to pick up, due dates near, etc. These are legitimate “notices” in my mind. Political campaigning is not.

Some of the so-called ‘Facts’ presented in your document could be disputed, so it is clearly a bid for ‘yes’ votes. I wonder now if you have provided the list of library card holder e-mail addresses to the three groups arguing for ‘no’ votes?

This is a highly questionable intrusion into patron records.

Another recipient of the email wrote to Parker: “Your email (below) encouraged me to submit any questions I might have. My question is, did I receive this email because I gave my email address to you when I received a library card and does this use of my email address violate your privacy policy?”

Parker responded thusly: “You did receive this email because you submitted your email when you registered for a card, and the notice we sent does not violate our privacy policy. That is not something that we would do.”

Attorney David Cahill (husband of Ward 1 City Council member Sabra Briere) was on the Board of the AADL when the privacy policy in question was crafted. In response to a question about whether there could be a reasonable interpretation of the AADL privacy policy that would allow Parker to send out an email about a ballot proposal to library card holders without violating the AADL’s privacy policy, Cahill responded by email:

The e-mail blast was a violation of the Library’s privacy policy.  That policy says patrons’ e-mail addresses will “only be used to deliver AADL notices”.  A notice cannot be anything, or else the policy has no meaning. A notice in the library context most commonly means an overdue notice, or a notice that a book on hold is ready to be picked up.  Also, the Library has occasionally sent e-mail notices of the temporary closing of one of the libraries for maintenance or because of loss of utility service.

I was on the Library Board when the privacy policy was originally adopted, and when it was amended.  I can remember no one ever saying that a “notice” could include something related to a political campaign.

Finally, a member of the AADL Board of Directors queried Parker on her use of patrons’ email addresses and asked whether the AADL’s Executive Director had violated the library’s privacy policy and, as a result, state and federal laws governing customers’ privacy, all in an effort to land $65 million dollars for the new library Parker wants to see built. Her response to the Board member confirms she used the AADL resources to, if Cahill’s interpretation is correct, lobby on behalf of a ballot proposal—a violation of the library’s non-profit status. Parker argues somewhat disingenuously that the message was not “advocacy,” and did not “advocate a vote one way or another.” She writes:

The AADL sent a notice to its users from our servers. We did not violate the privacy policy. The list was not used by a third party nor can it be used as such. I have answered this on my blog this morning, too. The FAQ did not advocate a vote one way or the other. I will remind everyone that I made sure before doing this that it was not a violation, and that the content of the document was not advocacy. I would not have done this otherwise. That someone says we violated the policy does not make it so. Ryan Stanton reprinted the entire message today on annarbor.com and that is why there is objection.

The alleged misuse of patrons’ email addresses in violation of their privacy is not the only issue what has library patrons hot under the collar. Campaign finance forms revealed that the nonprofit Friends of the Ann Arbor District Library had donated a whopping $25,000 to the PAC formed to help get the $65 million dollar bond approved by voters. The question of whether the funds should have been donated was not shared with the membership. Instead, the group’s Board of Directors voted to donate $25,000, or 16 percent of the 2011 total revenues ($155,000), an amount that comes close to putting the Friends of the Ann Arbor Library in violation of IRS rules concerning how much money a 501(c)3 may spend on supporting a ballot question committee.

David Cahill touched on this issue, as well.He writes, “IRS online materials sets a limit of 20% of the exempt funds that can be donated to a ballot question committee. I confess I haven’t read the IRS regs;  I don’t do tax work. But I don’t think a donation of 16% is a violation.”

A long-time member of the Friends of the Ann Arbor Library was more pointed: “I don’t care what the percentage was. I didn’t donate my books and volunteer my time so that they could give away $25,000 that could support important programming to a PAC. This is an insult to the many, many fine people who have donated books and other items to be sold, and a slap in the face to the members who should have been told about this before it was done.”

Should voters fail to approve the bond, on the heels of the political debacle that is the multi-million dollar county-wide transit plan failure, it will signal significant political trouble for the Hive Mind, whose members (and supporters) have thrown their waning influence behind both efforts. Coupled with the political wins of Ward 1 Council member-elect Sumi Kailasapathy, Ward 2 Council member-elect Sally Hart Petersen, and the 2011 election of Ward 2 Council member Jane Lumm, defeat of the library bond would signal another move away from expensive, much-criticized capital projects whose benefit to voters has been difficult to pin down. 

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